Gowalla Nothing More than a Shiny object

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Location Based Networks have become extremely popular in the last year and a half. I was an early adopter of Foursquare and continue to use it actively. It’s become somewhat mundane to go through the same routine. Check in, get points (that seem largely useless, become mayor if you’re lucky, earn some badges).

Foursquare seems to have stalled a bit on innovation, though there is some rumor of some new ideas that could get traction – MG Siegler of Techcrunch suggests a “Choose Your Own Adventure” style game where your city becomes your adventure quest.

However, that is not here yet and in the meantime, there are fresh challenges coming from Gowalla. I have not liked Gowalla though because they have developed their business in an iPhone-centric way – something which is, in my opinion, short-sighted and disenfranchises non-iPhone users. “You can always use the web interface,” is an insulting position to take with potential customers. It just says, “You’re not good enough for us.”

Gowalla has recently released apps for other platforms, though, so when they released their Blackberry app, I decided to run an experiment and give them the opportunity to win me over as a user. I decided that for a week, I would run Gowalla only and not Foursquare. Give it a fair shake, right?

Now, I realize that I’m pissing in my own back yard here. Gowalla is an Austin company and everyone loves Gowalla in Austin. I, however, am not known for playing nice just for the sake of playing nice. I’m sure the folks at Gowalla are great guys and I look forward to enjoying tasty adult beverages with them one day at some establishment that I check into with Foursquare.

Push Notifications Jump the Shark

My first 24 hours of Gowalla usage involved getting constant push notifications on my Blackberry. I realize the app is in beta but the only options for push notifications are to turn all notices off or turn them all on or select friends to get push notices from. The missing piece and the thing that differentiates Foursquare and makes them better, is push notifications inside a certain radius (I believe it’s 40 miles for Foursquare). So if I fly home to DC, I can start getting Gowalla notices from my friends there automatically.

I do not want to know that Beau Frusetta is at LA Fitness in Phoenix when I’m in Austin – at least not by push notification!

Continuing with this riff, why is Gowalla putting the impetus on their users to perform discovery? Why should I select which users I want top get notices from? How do I know if there are other people I want to get notices on and I just don’t realize it.

I realize I’m an exceptional case with nearly 900 Gowalla friends, but that presents a scaling question of discovery. If I have a list of 50 friends, I can manually curate the list I want notices from. When I have 900, that’s significantly harder. Why not provide a means of discovery? Maybe suggested users? Perhaps most active friends? Or something…

Location Gone Wrong

A second problem is the use of geolocation/GPS. On numerous occasions, I could search for a venue just to be placed several kilometers away from where I actually was. Perhaps I could move 5 feet away and get a better position, but Gowalla’s attempt to thwart people from gaming the system, at some distance they don’t allow a check in. That’s at least 2km away. This is very frustrating for the user and creates a socially awkward situation where, unlike Foursquare that takes 15-20 seconds to perform a check-in, Gowalla check-ins could take a minute or more just as a result of trying to get the service to know where you are.

But There’s Good Stuff…

I will say that I highly appreciate Gowalla’s “Trips” and “Events” functionality. Unlike Foursquare where you can only check in at places, Gowalla does allow for temporary events. USers have “lifehacked” Foursquare by creating venues that are actually events, but Gowalla has this functionality built-in. I like this.

Additionally, they have a Trips feature that allows users to map out places in a related away. Tour of downtown historical spots? There’s a trip for that. Bar crawl route in Tribeca? Got that covered. This is a very nice thing and probably along the lines of what Foursquare may do with the “Choose Your Own Adventure” functionality talked about earlier.

But these positive features were not enough for me to continue the experiment. The experiment is over only four days in. Back to Foursquare. Additionally, until they address the issues above, I can’t recommend anyone actually use the service. It effectively is relegated to a shiny object that looks nice but is effectively broken and unusable.

If you do intend on using Gowalla, I’d use it in parallel with Foursquare.

So let it be written, so let it be done. Ready, aim, fire. I’m ready to be flamed.

Do Not Lock In To One Device Lest You Kill Your Company

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It’s funny. Comical even. A few weeks ago, I wrote that The iPhone is to Smartphones as IE6 was to Browsers. Most of the readers of that article agreed with me but almost all had a “but, but, but…” argument. This is because the iPhone is one sexy beast to users, even though AT&T can’t seem to support the iPhone, as we also noted.

This is a comical observation because my position was endorsed (if not directly) by Peter-Paul Koch who daintily comments that “[He] will shout at web developers who think that delicately inserting an iPhone up their ass is the same as mobile web development.” He goes on to slam the web development community to catering to the iPhone in the same broken-record way that web developers catered to IE6 ten years ago.

Photo by Matt Buchanan

And adding insult to injury, the Guardian also picked up that story and offered their own ringing endorsement for both Peter-Paul and my perspectives.

I just got off the phone with an unnamed entrepreneur who wants to build a product that, while looking to the future and planning to diversify over a variety of products, looks at Apple’s forthcoming iPad as the launch device. I will offer you the same advice I offered him as well as the same advice I offer to iPhone only products like Gowalla.

If you want to start on the iPad, fine. You better be damn sure you’re ready to diversify quickly. I don’t care if you put it on a non-touch device like, oh I don’t know, the web with a normal browser on a normal computer… do not disenfranchise users. Peter-Paul Koch notes, in the article I linked to above, that the iPhone carries only 15% of the worldwide mobile market. Yet it gets an insane amount of attention as if it was the most important product ever created.

Newsflash… it’s not. It’s not even close.

In fact, it’s still not a business class phone (with rare exception). And in fact, developers continue to ignore other platforms… like the BlackBerry.

Sidenote: It’s okay to have a mobile web interface but don’t lose the forest through the trees. Users will feel like second-hand citizens if you don’t pay attention to their needs.

Mobile developers: Think before you develop only for the iPhone or only for the iPad. Entrepreneurs: Think before you start a company or launch a product made exclusively, or designed with a business model only for the iPhone or the iPad.